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New York City has one of the world’s largest steam systems, with over 100 miles of underground steam piping serving nearly 2,000 buildings. Unfortunately, exploding steam pipes are not unheard of, and a 20-inch pipe exploded on July 19 in the Flatiron district. It blew a hole in the ground that was a car length wide and about one-and-a-half car lengths long.

Although only five people suffered immediate injuries, testing found that there was asbestos in the steam line. That could put firefighters, residents and passersby at risk for long-term health problems including a deadly cancer called mesothelioma.

The city ordered the evacuation of 49 area buildings, and residents were expected to be displaced for a few days. According to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office, Con Edison will pay for hotel accommodations through its claims process — a move which could affect about 500 people from 250 residences.

Asbestos decontamination units were set up in the area for the general public’s use, along with units to decontaminate 100 firefighters.

Mayor de Blasio urged anyone who could have come in contact with contaminated debris from the blast to bag their clothing and take a shower. A testing site for clothing was set up at 22nd and Broadway.

Beyond immediate contact with asbestos-contaminated debris, there is some concern that asbestos could have entered area buildings through their air conditioning systems. Therefore, officials needed to clear each building to determine if they were safe to reenter. The plan was to clear the farthest buildings first in order to allow as many residents as possible to return right away.

“We’re going to work from an abundance of caution,” Mayor de Blasio told the New York Times. “Now that we know there’s asbestos present, we’re not going to cut any corners.”

As the Times noted, this is not the first time a Con Edison steam pipe has exploded in the city. As we discussed last week, in August 1989, a steam pipe exploded in Gramercy Park and killed three people, including two Con Edison workers, and injured 24 others. In July 2007, another steam pipe exploded near Grand Central Terminal, injuring numerous people and killing one.

Jaroslawicz & Jaros PLLC was lead counsel to the building owner and around 30 tenants in the 1989 incident, and we represented several people — including other lawyers — in the 2007 explosion. In the 1989 explosion, Con Edison pled guilty to concealing the release of asbestos from federal authorities.

A city investigation into the cause of the steam pipe explosion is ongoing, and Governor Andrew Cuomo said that the Department of Public Service will also investigate.